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Kit Gruelle met her husband Jack in 1979. She was 22. “He was very charming and charismatic initially. And, incredibly handsome. I never thought anyone that handsome would want to have anything to do with me. He swept me off my feet … and then he established he was going to run the show.”
She remembers with extreme clarity the first incidence of physical violence in their relationship. “I was in the kitchen and he just grabbed me by the throat.” Jack, a former Marine, had recently come back from Vietnam. “He said, ‘I just want to make one thing really clear: I was trained by the Marine Corps to hunt people down and kill them. If you leave me, I will find you and kill you.’ I saw the look in his eyes and knew he was serious.”
The abuse escalated from that point on and Gruelle was too afraid to leave. As a domestic violence advocate for the last three decades, she understands why many battered women choose to stay. “Battered women are like benign hostages. I did run away several times, but I always went back because once someone convinces you that they’ll hunt you down and kill you like prey, you feel some sort of bizarre sense of security [being near them]. I think the only people who understand this are other battered [survivors] and POWs.”
She thought that if they had a child, it would settle Jack down. “He’d see me as the mother of his child and he’d stop.” Gruelle, who also had a son from a previous relationship, became pregnant. Their son was born, but Jack’s abuse continued. Gruelle described her home situation as full of “intense terror.”
She went to the police only once, after Jack took their infant son and wouldn’t bring him back. She said her only glimmer of hope was the police officer who asked her one very important question: “He said, ‘Tell me what’s been happening.’” Gruelle opened up about the abuse and the officer issued a warrant for Jack’s arrest. But the hope was short-lived—Gruelle, frightened and without any other clear options, felt she had no choice but to lie to the judge. “I said, ‘Everything’s fine your honor. I knew I didn’t have a choice.” She reached her breaking point soon after and attempted suicide by taking an overdose of pills
Several weeks later, fate intervened. Jack was killed in an accident at work. “He worked for an oil company cleaning up spills off the Gulf of Mexico. A steel cable snapped and fractured his skull, broke his jaw, broke one of his legs and punctured his lung.” Even though she says she was initially wracked with guilt, she acknowledges that, in some ways, it was karma. And, a godsend. “I knew it was either going to be me or him, which is why I tried to commit suicide. It took me a lot of therapy to work through everything that happened.”
Today, Gruelle is leading a very different life. After her husband’s death, she didn’t tell anyone about the abuse. “I was deeply ashamed. I still felt like it was somehow my fault.” Then, she saw an ad in the newspaper about training being offered to help battered women. She decided to sign up. “The day I saw the Power and Control Wheel, I can’t even describe to you what it meant to me to have it all laid out like that. Everything fell into place.”
She went on to work with domestic violence survivors at three different domestic violence shelters. She currently works with California POST (Peace Officer Standards and Training) training law enforcement officers in domestic violence crisis negotiations. She also still works as an advocate, mostly for and with women who have killed their abusers. Gruelle also helped create, and starred in, a documentary called Private Violence, with executive producers Gloria Steinem and Cindy Waitt. The film follows the story of domestic violence survivor Deanna Walters, and examines the work domestic violence advocates like Gruelle do. It premiered at Sundance in 2014 before being picked up by HBO last year.
Most importantly, Gruelle is safe. But she knows lots of other women aren’t. “There are still lots and lots of women who stay [with a batterer] because it’s not safe to leave. They don’t have a criminal justice system that takes them seriously. We still have a very long way to go, but I love this work and I love being a part of this great social justice movement.”
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